Walking in the Shadows of 9/11: Part 1
NEW YORK CITY — A decade later, images from Sept. 11, 2001, remain vivid in the minds of most Americans. Plane crashes. Collapsing skyscrapers. Staggering people covered in dust. Horror. Shock. Confusion. Fear. Heroism.
And those once-random numbers, now forever conjoined by tragedy — 9/11. They trigger poignant memories and stand as a mile-marker in millions of lives, especially in New York. There, the unthinkable was witnessed first-hand, not through TV news clips. Two-thousand, seven-hundred fifty-three people died in the attacks on New York, according to the city’s official count. The plot, carried out on a sunny Tuesday morning by teams of suicidal hijackers aboard four commercial airliners, killed another 184 people at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and 40 more in a grassy field near Shanksville, Pa., but the wounds inflicted upon New York tend to symbolize 9/11.
Steven Chelsen wears his own reminder.
On a steamy afternoon earlier this summer, the 44-year-old Staten Island man stood at the corner of Church and Vesey streets in the financial district of Lower Manhattan. The sound of heavy construction, carried out daily by nearly 3,000 workers, filled the hot July air. Concrete trucks churned.
Cranes hoisted steel beams. Street cops cleared pedestrians from the path of dump trucks heading into the site of what once was the original World Trade Center, and what will be the new World Trade Center — also known as “ground zero.” Chelsen works there as a mechanic for Local 1 of the International Union of Elevator Constructors.
With a hard-hat tucked under his left arm, Chelsen extended his right arm to reveal an intricate tattoo. It features a portrait of a New York City firefighter, Roy W. Chelsen, his brother, “a fighter” and “bigger than life,” as Steven put it. The “28” on the helmet represents Roy’s firehouse, Engine Company 28, on the Lower East Side, where he’d served since 1985. At the bottom are three sets of numbers, all containing a sadly ironic similarity — 11/9/59 (Roy’s birth date), 9/11/01 (the day that changed Roy’s future), and 1/9/11 (the day Roy died).
On Sept. 11, 2001, Roy led Engine Company 28 to the World Trade Center. Al-Qaida hijackers had steered fuel-laden commercial airliners into the iconic Twin Towers. On a rescue mission, Roy and the Engine 28 crew were inside the lobby of the burning North Tower, which got hit first by American Airlines Flight 11 at 8:46 a.m. The South Tower had already crumbled, just 56 minutes after being struck by United Airlines Flight 175. Sensing the North Tower was about to go, too, Roy guided his cohorts and others out of the shuddering, flaming structure and under a bridge moments before the massive 110-story building imploded, according to oral histories compiled by the New York Times in 2005. Those with Roy survived, but 343 other New York firefighters perished that day.
Duty brought Roy back to the site, day after day, through the following spring, combing the rubble in search of the lost and enduring the constant smoke and fumes.
“My brother took it hard,” Steven Chelsen said of 9/11. “He really had a hard time, after the fact, losing his friends. It was a difficult time for everyone. He spent nine months digging in that pit, in a recovery effort, because they knew then there were no more survivors.
“And then, four years later,” Steven added, “he got diagnosed with multiple myeloma.”
Roy’s battle with that form of cancer ended Jan. 9. Steven began his construction job at the WTC site four days before his brother died.
“Sometimes,” Steven said, “it’s hard for me to come here in the morning.”